Don’t you hate it when they do that? The latest Sci-ence is talking about your choice of avatars — those little icons we so thoughtlessly (in my case) attach to our posts. I thought Jeffrey Rowland’s cartoon of me in a diaper and angel wings was so adorable I snagged it a few years ago and have been using it ever since. But it turns out that your choice of avatar actually has an effect on naive user’s impression of you.
It’s really no surprise that your online avatar influences others’ perceptions of you. In an old UConn computer behavior study (lol IM), participants were asked rate a series of avatars that ranged from people to objects with faces. What they found was pretty obvious: when faced with an avatar in online interactions, participants relied on the characteristics of the avatar for social clues about who they were interacting with.
What’s really interesting about the Nowak/Rauh study is that participants who were more familiar with online interaction relied on the avatars less and instead looked for behavioral cues. It makes sense, given that those who are used to navigating around avatars are generally aware that they aren’t really talking to a bottle of laundry detergent, rather a person who has chosen a bottle of laundry detergent as their avatar.
I haven’t really been paying much attention to those little avatars — hey, I’m a participant who is “more familiar with online interaction” — but now I’m thinking of tweaking the display to make them twice as big and make new user’s default icon really ugly, just to be mean.
I’m not feeling any compulsion to change mine, though.
For those of you wondering how to set your avatar: go to Gravatar.com, and upload an image under the same email address you use to log on here. That’ll do it!